I really dislike telling muggles (my term for people who don't practice martial arts) that I'm a black belt, or even that I practice karate. It's not that I'm ashamed of it - I'm actually quite proud to be a karateka - it's that I find it hard to communicate what my practice or my rank actually means to somebody who doesn't do any martial arts.
How do I know people don't understand? Because no matter how well meaning (and I honestly believe that these conversations all involve absolutely well-meaning people, and if you've said these things don't feel bad!) they are, people almost always make follow-up questions or comments that leave me shaking my head. I bet you've heard the same kind of things:
"Oh, you have a 3rd degree black belt? My niece does too - she's 11 years old and she studies tae kwon do!"
"Does that mean you could beat up (a second degree black belt, a boxer, anybody else, a UFC fighter, a motorcycle gang member)?"
"I guess I shouldn't get into a fight with you!"
"So, you're 3rd degree, and there are 10 degrees, so only 7 more until you're finished!"
"Does that mean you can (break bats with your shins, break slabs of ice, do jumping spinning kicks, break this object that we have lying around the office, do pushups on one fist)?"
"I bet you still can't beat a well place round from a Colt .45."
And so on.
I understand why people make these responses - they're trying to make conversation, they don't really know what martial arts are all about or why grownups would spend hours a week learning them, or they just don't know what else to say. That's part of the reason why I'm writing this post - to clarify things a little.
So what does it mean when someone tells another person (someone outside the style I practice) that (s)he is a Xth degree black belt?
Every once in a while people hear "I practice karate" or "I have a black belt" and hear it as an implied threat - as if someone said, "I could totally kick your ass." Now when someone tells you that they could kick your ass it isn't just a statement of fact - it's not the same as me saying, "I can type faster than you can" - it's usually a veiled warning (depending on context, of course). So sometimes people get defensive, thinking that the karateka is asserting dominance or threatening to use violence to resolve any conflicts.
In fact, however, more often than not a trained karateka will be less likely to start a fight with an untrained person. We have nothing to gain from it, ego-wise - if I beat up an untrained coworker I won't have proven anything, because after 10 years of training if I couldn't whip the ass of a guy who hasn't thrown a punch since grammar school I'd be super pathetic. Plus, we're less likely to freak out in violent situations - you throw a punch at me, it won't be a completely foreign experience, while if you throw a punch at someone who is completely untrained - or do anything else, even innocently, that might make them feel threatened - they're more likely to overreact. Plus, we know that we're less likely to receive sympathy from judges and juries, simply because we are trained in martial arts. So we have more to lose.
I'm sure you can find examples of martial artists who use their rank/ status as a means of bullying other people - but they're the exception, in my experience. Bullies don't usually last too long in the dojo - there are too many tough people around who won't put up with that kind of attitude.
A natural assumption people make is that a black belt is a black belt is a black belt, regardless of style. They think that being an Xth degree black belt is like meeting some objective standard - like being an Olympic qualifier in swimming or something.
In fact different styles have widely varying requirements for promotion to black belt, and they change with different levels. For example, it is typical for a shodan (1st degree black belt) to be granted to a student based on skill/ knowledge of the syllabus, but usually higher rankings (say, 5th degree and up, roughly speaking) take into account a person's contributions to the style - do they teach, how many high ranking people they've trained, etc.
Additionally, the relative skill required differs greatly from style to style. I trained as a kid in a style where it took 10 years of hard training, minimum, to achieve a black belt. I saw my teacher do some kata the day after he got his first degree black belt and he was awesome. His skill level was at least equal to most 3rd or 4th degree black belts in traditional styles.
If you want to know how "good" or skilled someone is at martial arts a much better question than rank is how many years they've been training. Of course, someone who puts in 10+ hours/ week of training for 5 years is probably going to be better than someone who trains 2 hours/week for 6 years, and someone with better teachers and classmates will advance more quickly, but you'll get a rough approximation.
Implied Fighting Ability
Other people hear "I practice karate" and think I mean to say that I could beat up either anyone who doesn't practice, or anyone of lower rank than me. So they sometimes ask if I could beat up a particular person or type of person, to put me in the correct spot in some imagined global pecking order. The answer is always "maybe," because the outcome of a fight depends on so many things. I could lose a fistfight with my seven year old daughter if I get hit by a stray meteor before landing a punch.
Now, we can argue statistics, and my chances would be pretty good against most seven year old children, but if you ask how I'd do against your average 3rd degree black belt in tae kwon do, even if you narrowed it down to a particular school, the answer would have to be - how the hell should I know? How many tae kwon do black belts do you think I've gotten into streetfights with, that I should have a solid grasp of my mathematical chances? (In case you're not sure, the answer is zero.)
In fact it is very difficult to answer the question of "who would beat whom." It depends on circumstances, rules (or lack of rules), relative condition (we all have good days and bad days), and luck. The one thing I feel very comfortable saying is this: I'm better as a 3rd degree black belt than I was when I got my 1st degree. If I could travel back in time, I'd have a very good chance of beating up my old self in a fight (though that seems like an awful waste of the ability to travel in time). And I'd stand a better chance in a fight against anybody with my current skill level than I would have before - though that doesn't mean I'd have a good chance of beating up any particular person.
There is another aspect to this that we have to consider: age. I'm 40. 50 years from now I'll still be at least a 3rd degree black belt - maybe higher. Chances are that despite my best efforts I won't be much of a fighter at that point, despite my rank. There is always, or almost always, a loss in overal ability due to the accumulated injuries and the effects of aging and training on fast twitch muscle fibers.
So what does a black belt mean?
The efforts of marketers and martial arts movie producers have resulted in a somewhat mystical and somewhat, in my opinion, misleading perception of what a black belt is. Not every black belt is a paragon of virtue. Not every black belt is ready to step into an action film or fight off a gang of thugs bare handed. Not every black belt is even capable of feats that would impress an untrained observer.
Pretty much every black belt (depending on their style and school) is someone who has devoted a significant amount of time over several years doing difficult training to perfect their art. They have met some arbitrary standard for promotion - one decided on by their instructors. Tha'ts it.
Does that mean that person deserves your respect? Probably, at least a little bit. I have respect for anybody who works hard to achieve a goal - I respect people who can play musical instruments. My cousin Ed is a hell of a photographer, I respect him for that tremendously. Does it mean you need to tread lightly around a black belt or worry about them beating you up? Only if they're also an asshole - which is possible, but actually not that likely. Violent people don't often last long in martial arts - bullies and hot tempered people don't do well when they have to regularly spend time in rooms filled with people skilled enough to kick the crap out of them.
If you meet someone who trains in karate you can ask them their rank, but if you want to make small talk try these questions instead:
For how long have you been training?
What style do you practice? (You can follow up by asking where the style is from, etc., especially if you haven't heard of it.)
Do you train with weapons or only bare hands?
How often do you train?
How/why did you get started in your martial art?
Do you do anything outside the dojo to supplement your martial arts training?
Do you think I could learn it as well? (feigning interest in another person's hobbies is a great way to make friends!)
Treat your black belt wearing friends the same way you'd treat someone who has any weird but interesting hobby - an amateur painter, long distance runner, or whatever. Try to avoid talking about violence and dominance issues. We don't practice martial arts so others will fear us, we do it because we love it.
And if you really want to understand what a black belt means, take up karate (or, if you must, some other style of traditional martial arts) and train hard for four or five years. By then you'll probably understand!